CGN is considering the introduction of handling fees for the samples it distributes to its users. To explore the pro’s and con’s of this option, it started a discussion in the international genebank community by (1) posting a message on this weblog, (2) correspondence with the ECPGR Steering Committee via its mailing list, and (3) bilateral correspondence with some relevant actors. This request for feedback resulted in numerous valuable responses. Below we briefly highlight major outcomes of the discussion and their implications for the next steps that CGN will consider to take.
Budget shortages and handling fees a common theme
As a first outcome, it became apparent that the issue of requesting handling fees for genebank samples has been recently discussed in several genebanks. However, so far only very few (e.g. AVRDC, Taiwan and NIAS, Japan) have actually introduced handling fees. Regardless the outcome of the discussion, we feel that the discussion has a value in its own right, since it triggers attention for the difficult funding position of a number of genebanks. Whether genebanks can cope with deficiencies in their funding is of course highly relevant, given the crucial role that genebanks play in plant breeding and crop research, especially in the context of longer term world food security under climate change.
The nature of a handling fee
Generating regular income from the distribution of germplasm is clearly not CGNs intention; this would not be compatible with the conditions of the ITPGRFA, nor with AEGIS. Handling fees refer to relatively small contributions to cover the costs of handling the request, including the associated labour, material and postage costs, plus the transaction costs of the payment. To our understanding the ‘value’ of the accessions is thus irrelevant to answer the question of introducing handling fees or not by CGN or any other genebank, assuming this value exceeds the handling costs in the first place.
The fee level
A handling fee of €50 per accession that CGN initially proposed, was generally considered far too high for various reasons. Indeed, it might be more appropriate to calculate the true distribution costs and recalculate the resulting fees, that might possibly consist of a charge per transaction and a charge per accession. However, for some specific categories of material, that fall outside the definition of PGR in the narrow sense (mapping populations, allele collections, etc.) and that have not been included in the MLS, different charges might be applied not only covering the handling fees.
It is expected that the costs of financial transactions can be kept low at both ends (provider and recipient) by using ICT solutions that are currently available.
Some groups of users will be exempted from the handling fees. Groups that are currently considered for exemption include users in least developed countries (according to the United Nations category), and partners of CGN that support CGN by regenerating and/or evaluating material as an in-kind contribution. Requests that can be considered repatriation will also be exempted. It seems fair if the distribution costs made for the exempted requests will be carried by CGN, and will not be compensated by increasing the fees of the other requests.
Possible effects of handling fee introduction
Handling fees will not only compensate distribution costs, they are also expected to considerably reduce the number of distributed samples, and thus in the longer term regeneration costs. Users may become more critical regarding the number of samples they request if there is a price tag connected to the individual accession, and some users might decide not to request material at all or try to get the material from other genebanks. This expected reduction in the number of requested samples can be both positive and negative, since it may avoid less well considered requests for material, but it may also deter serious users. The latter will in general be undesirable as genebanks have been mandated to promote the use of their materials. Also, the willingness of users to collaborate with the providing genebank, to give feedback and send evaluation data back to the genebank may be negatively impacted.
Handling fees and liability
The service that a genebank provides should be of appropriate quality, irrespective of whether handling fees are charged or not. Introduction of handling fees should not affect liability issues: a genebank provides the material as good as it can, and cannot be held liable for any damages due to the lack of quality of the seed material or the associated information. However, this issue should be investigated more in depth before the introduction of handling fees.
In the discussion a few interesting issues arose that may justify a separate study or discussion. For example, it appeared that some of the major genebanks are confronted with a steep increase in the number of distributed samples over the last few years. What has caused this increase? To which extent might the following factors have contributed: (1) are breeding companies building up their own PGR collections since they fear these resources may get less accessible over time, (2) do new marker assisted breeding methods allow for more efficient use of exotic material, (3) or do websites and better use of other means of communication render the use of PGR much more attractive and easy. Related to this question is another lack of insight: what do we know about the distribution of genebank material to users by individual genebanks, how do different user groups compare, and what use conditions do apply on the distributed germplasm? The answers to those questions would also facilitate further deliberations on handling fees, but answers may not be feasible in the short term.
CGN’s decision-making process
In the coming months, CGN will continue its consultations with stakeholders, including its users and its main funding agency, the Dutch ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation. A decision regarding the introduction of handling fees is expected to be made in the last quarter of this year at the earliest. In the meanwhile, we invite all our colleagues and stakehlders to further contribute to the discusions on the introduction of a handling fee for genebank accessions. In turn, we shall update you regularly ablout any new insights or developments.
Bert Visser & Theo van Hintum (CGN)